Omens are good for Malaysia's next 50 years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2007, 12:00am

It was not a very happy Malaysia that, on Friday, celebrated 50 years since Malaya became independent. (Malaysia came into existence in 1963 when the British-ruled Sabah, Sarawak and [briefly] Singapore joined.)

For sure, Malaysia has a lot to celebrate in terms of progress, prosperity, openness, diversity and flexibility. But it seems that the celebrations have been able to provide only a brief interlude between increasingly raucous exchanges over race and religion.

Indeed, the 50th anniversary has focused attention on these two most divisive issues: how to create a Malaysian identity out of a mixed population while maintaining Malay supremacy; and how to accommodate the religious expectations of an Islamic majority within a secular constitution. In turn, these are fuelled as much by economic forces as by those of ideology and culture.

The bottom line is that the race-based political party system is no longer so useful. It served tolerably well in the early independence era, creating a coalition that provided a means of keeping racial and religious strains in check. But the dominance of the United Malays National Organisation has become so marked that a tyranny of the (almost) majority is never far from non-Malay minds.

After 50 years of power, Umno has become one of the most corrupt political parties on the planet. Power in most societies provides access to contracts and payoffs, but in Malaysia the process is giving legal sanction through preferences for Malays.

In turn, the Umno leadership has to pander to Islamist pressures. That's in order to prevent the Parti Islam se-Malaysia from gaining the votes of the religiously inclined, or those Malays resentful of the fact that the elite is the main beneficiary of pro-Malay economic policies. This explains the gradual drift away from the notion that the constitution is secular in spirit and, while it gives a certain primacy to Islam and Malays on account of history and numbers, it is in essence racially neutral.

Of course, Islam should be racially neutral, too. But in the Malay version, religion and race have become intertwined so that Malays are by definition Muslim. Muslim laws must be accorded a status above that of the secular constitution. Meanwhile, Malays must be accorded economic and social privileges to bring them up to the level of the non-Malays.

Affirmative action for Malays was certainly justified when introduced in 1970. However, even former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - originally a fierce proponent of pro-Malay policies - admits it has become a crutch, especially for elite Malays.

For sure the elite has always been pragmatic, making exceptions to attract foreign investment and being sufficiently worldly wise not to go farther down the Islamist path than it deemed politically necessary. But balances have shifted so much since independence that the next 50 years must see some realignment if the nation is to continue to progress peacefully.

The achievement of rapid economic growth despite the economic costs of affirmative action has been a tribute to pragmatism - but at least as much to the bounteous nature of Malaysia's resources. Resource riches will not vanish, but they may become less important as the population grows and some resources - timber is almost gone already - are depleted.

The Malay elite may be corrupt but it remains pragmatic, is at ease internationally, and wants the nation to continue on its modernising path. Despite official constraints on the media and periodic, oppressive behaviour by officials, in reality Malaysia remains a nation more open and relaxed than the headlines sometimes suggest.

Indeed, recent sharp exchanges over race and religion are evidence of a freedom of expression not found in bottled-up neighbours such as Singapore. On balance, one can be optimistic about its next 50 years.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator